Reflections on the Cathedral of Notre Dame

As Holy Week began, this week, we watched the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris with a sense of disbelief.

The fire began after 6:20 p.m., Paris time, and quickly spread throughout the church. The raging inferno consumed the entire building for several hours. Footage of the fire was broadcast across the world and many watched as the historic spire and roof collapsed. As the fire smoldered, worshipers gathered around the area singing hymns, such as Ave Maria, as a way to mourn what was taking place. We assumed, in the early moments of the fire, that all was lost.

In the days since the fire, we have learned that may not be the case. Many of the cathedral’s historic artifacts are able to be preserved. Some had already been taken off site due to an ongoing renovation project. Others, such as the Crown of Thorns, were removed during the fire. Even still, some relics, glass windows, and the cross and altar area were seemingly untouched by the flames.

Plans are underway to rebuild the cathedral. French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the nation’s desire for the church to be rebuilt. Leaders and others from around the world have committed upwards to $1 billion dollars (880 million euros) to restoration efforts after the fire.

The fire and the store of the Cathedral of Notre Dame has captured our attention this Holy Week. And, perhaps, rightly so.

For one, the church has a historic place in Western Civilization and culture. The 800-year old church has stood as one of the most iconic elements of the Paris skyline and is the site of some of the world’s most famous pieces of architecture. Even when it was nearly abandoned during the French Revolution, the site stood as a witness of hope in troubled times. So much so, that when German dictator Adolph Hitler gave orders, at the end of World War II, for his army to demolish the cathedral German soldiers, instead, preserved the building from destruction.

As well, the cathedral stands as one of the oldest churches in the world and, perhaps, one of its most recognizable. It is not the oldest. That honor goes to the Church of the Nativity in Israel, but its historic standing reminds us that the church, and its people, have given witness to God’s love throughout the generations. This Middle Ages structure of faith is a testament to how the people of God have been present and how we stand upon their shoulders.

Yet, we are captivated by the story of the Cathedral of Notre Dame because churches matter. Now, let me predicate that by saying that the church is not the focus of the mission. The focus of the mission is on the people and the community of faith. That doesn’t mean, however, that churches do not have an importance and place in the worship of God.

When I drive home to Shady Spring, W.Va., I have to pass Perry Memorial United Methodist Church. Every time I see the church, I am reminded of pastors who have preached there, people who have loved me, and moments of joy that bring a smile to my face. Those same emotions come as I pass by communities I’ve served or walk into my office and the sanctuary here at Ogden Memorial. We all have those same or similar emotions when we walk into our church. The church, as a building, gives a place for these holy moments to transpire.

We mourn the fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, because it reminds us of our connection to our community of faith. Of how, we are gathered as a community to a specific place to give worship to God. We are sent out from that place to extend love and peace with the people we meet through our actions that are reflective of our worship. Churches give us a sending point for mission and ministry.

Perhaps, as well, it is ironic this fire occurred during Holy Week. This is a time in which we are mindful of the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. The fire is a symbolic and real reflection upon death and destruction. Within the fire, though, there are signs of hope and redemption, such as the pieces saved, places that can be rebuilt, and the opportunities for something greater to come. These are signs of the resurrection of God doing something amazing out of what seems lost and forever damaged.

A church, a building, a historic structure, gives us that place for reflection this week. So, it is appropriate that on this Holy Week we have been taken up by the situation in Paris. It has given us a reminder that even when it seems like everything is destroyed, God’s grace tells us that there is always hope.

Hope that is found even within a church building.

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The Embrace of Jesus

On a bookshelf in my office is a new decorative piece that I received in Jerusalem. It is an olive wood carving of Jesus.

It is not the only such carving that I have in my office, but this one is different. When you look at it, the first thing you notice is Jesus embracing two children as he is sitting down. One child is cradled near his neck and likely a young toddler. The other is a young girl, perhaps no older than my own child, who is standing and brought in close to Jesus.

Of course, when you see the carving, your mind goes to the story in the Gospels when Jesus is confronted by his own disciples for welcoming children into his care. Children, in those days, were not to approach religious teachers until they reached a certain age, and a child approaching Jesus would have been unheard of and unacceptable. Jesus has other ideas, and says, “let the little children come to me.” (Matthew 19:14, NIV) Jesus is accepting and welcoming of children.

We know this. We celebrate it by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” Perhaps that might be all you think about if you looked at the carving. But beyond that, I’m drawn to Jesus’ arms when I look at it on the shelf.

His arms are embracing and welcoming, and they bring in those society has discarded as unwelcome. There is more to the carving, and perhaps more to Matthew 19:14, than just the idea of welcoming children to the church and making sure they are part of Sunday School, worship, and children’s activities.

I cannot help but think of how the same arms that lift up a toddler and a young child in a warm embrace, also bring in the least of these and the unwanted in our own time. Jesus’ words of welcome to the children are not limited to those who have yet to reach a certain age. It is also extended to the people who live upon society’s margins.

In Jesus’ time, you would be hard pressed to find just one group that lived on the margins. There were the poor who lived in the same communities Jesus traveled through, who barely had enough money to provide food for their families. There were the religious outcasts – women, Gentiles, and others – who were not allowed to worship with the entire community. There were people who were discounted simply for where they lived or what had occurred in their lives.

Each of these groups of people, Jesus routinely welcomed… to the consternation of both the religious elites and his own disciples. The embrace of Jesus is wide and welcoming to the very people society says “no” to including.

Our participation in the life of Christ calls us to have the same embracing attitude of society’s outcasts and undesirables as Jesus does. The embrace of Jesus calls us into society’s margins to share the love and hope of Christ to the least of these. It also calls us to go into places of power and privilege, to the communities that believe they have no need of the God of holy love, and to express the truth of God’s hope.

The call to live like Jesus is one that brings us into places we are not always comfortable with going. Our invitations of welcome and care, in the life of the church universal, are often limited to those we find acceptable and approachable. We are often more comfortable with reaching people who are “like us” and desire churches to be filled with only like-minded individuals. We do this to the detriment of true discipleship and the embrace of Jesus.

Living like Jesus takes us into areas where we might be uncomfortable and requires us to live with arms wide open. What often holds us back is our own fear of what may happen, our biases, and, ultimately, our own trepidation of truly living like Jesus. When we allow fear to consume us, our embrace is limited and our arms do not fling open as wide as we see Jesus’ arms do.

I cannot help but ponder how we might be called to reflect upon this as we approach Holy Week on Sunday. The message of Jesus’ death and resurrection cannot be just Good News for those who sit comfortably in the pews of the sanctuary. It must also be Good News for the poor, forgotten, and unwelcomed of society.

Perhaps as we go to the cross with Jesus, we need to contemplate how truly embracing the church, as a whole, can be towards those society does not accept. Perhaps we also need to contemplate our own contribution to those situations in our own limited welcome and embrace of others.

As we do, we need to consider the hope of the resurrection that announces God is doing something new in the world. Something new and amazing – not just for me. Something new and amazing – not just for you. Something new and amazing – not just for those who sit in the pews of the church. But truly, something new and amazing for the poor, the forgotten, the outcast, the shunned, and the unwelcome.

The hope of this season is that Jesus’ arms are flung wide open with love for everyone. We get to share that good news.

It is That Important

Last year, I had the responsibility of planning daily Holy Week services in Mercer County. It was the second year I had this responsibility, and I enjoyed gathering an ecumenical body together each day for worship and reflection.

What I remember the most about last year’s worship services was an interview I had with a reporter from the local newspaper. We were talking about why Holy Week is important and I used a phrase similar to this:

It is the Super Bowl, Daytona 500, Indy 500, March Madness, and Game 7 all rolled into one week.

That idea was the main point used in the article. It is still the main point today. Holy Week is our Super Bowl. Holy Week is our Daytona 500. Holy Week is our Indy 500. Holy Week is our March Madness. Holy Week is our Game 7.

It is that important.

Holy WeekCross Of Christ Religious Stock Photo begins Sunday on Palm Sunday and runs through sunset on Holy Saturday. It is the most important week of the Christian calendar, as we will celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and reflect upon what it means for us today. We need Holy Week, because we need to hear the story again and again.

It is easy to assume we do not need Holy Week. We’ve heard the story before. We know Jesus. We know what the days means. All of this we will convince ourselves of as we make other things – personal lives, schedules, finances – more important than our faith and relationship with Jesus. We disconnect ourselves from the story as the same time as we allow other ideas and influences claim authority in our lives.

We need Holy Week because it reminds us that Jesus is Lord. On Palm Sunday, we will remember how Jesus entered Jerusalem as the heralded Messiah and King of all. We need that reminder of how Jesus is our Lord and King. Jesus lovingly desires to guide us to live out what it means to be in an intimate relationship and connection with God.

On Maundy Thursday we will remember how we often want something else besides Jesus all together. We will remember how we turned our back on Jesus – an act we will do today through our words, actions, and deeds – because Jesus isn’t what we often expect.

On Good Friday we will remember how Jesus loves us unconditionally. That no matter what we’ve done or who we are Jesus desires to be in relationship with us.

On Easter morning we will celebrate that there is hope in the world. Even when it seems like there is nothing to be hopeful about, the message of the empty tomb reminds us that God is in control and Jesus lives and reigns.

I don’t know about you, but I believe those are messages we need today. Those are messages that I need today.

Messages that we need as our lives become over scheduled by agendas that seek to control our time and connections. Messages we need as we seek to make power and politics as our primary concern instead of love and connection with God. Messages we need as we seek to be more focused on ourselves instead of the greater good.

We need Holy Week, because it is that important for our lives.

I hope you will join us throughout Holy Week at Ogden Memorial this year. More importantly, my prayer is that this week will be an opportunity to encounter the presence of God in your life and in our community.

The Foolishness of the Cross

For many of you, this is the first time you will hear me say a few words about faith. Allow me to tell you a little bit about myself. I grew up in West Virginia. I spent the first 23 years of my life in the Mountain State, learning everything from the proper way of eating a hot dog – that would be with mustard, ketchup, coleslaw, chili, and onions – to how to look away from a West Virginia basketball game that doesn’t seem to go your way.

One of the most lasting impressions West Virginia and its culture gave me was a strong work ethic. You worked hard at what you did. There was a strong emphasis placed on proving yourself, showing your worth, and getting the most out of life. You were taught to earn everything you have in life.

Even though this is an ethic I learned in West Virginia, I do not think it is too far from the norm for many of us. We value hard work. We want to earn what we have and prove our worth to people. This is true whether it is in our jobs, our families, or in any other situation that comes before us. We want people to know us by what we do, by what we know, or by what we’ve accomplished. Continue reading

Sunday Sermon: I Entrust My Spirit

On this Palm Sunday, we began our celebration by going back to the beginning of that Passover celebration so many years ago. Jesus and his followers triumphantly entered Jerusalem.

It was a celebratory scene of great jubilation and anticipation. The people expected Jesus to come and fulfil the promises of the Messiah and restore the Kingdom of Israel. So, they brought out the palm branches and laid them on the ground – an act that is something like laying out the red carpet today – and shouted “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” All while Jesus humbly rode into town on the back of a donkey. Continue reading

Jesus’ Trial, the Crowds, and Us

It doesn’t take a lot of time to recognize that our world is different than what many of us grew up with or have much familiarity with. Life is lived today in the fast lane, where it seems everything must happen in the instant. Communication is less about meeting with someone face-to-face, but done more through a text message or tweet. Also, we are long past the days where opening the doors on Sunday mornings meant large numbers of people would want to come or feel the need to worship.

Much has changed in the world with many of these changes taking place over the last 10 years. These changes provide challenges to our church and our mission to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. At the same time, I believe these changes has led to the most exciting time to be in the church or in ministry. We can no longer sit back and expect people to come to us. We must go to them.

One of the things that excites me about ministry today is the abundance of narratives that are prevalent today. We are recognizing that there are many voices in our world and these voices need to be heard. Where in previous times we might have only heard from a select or influential few, we now see the worth and importance of having a diverse set of narratives and what these narratives bring to our discussions. I think this allows us to see God in a deeper way and to reflect on the love of Jesus Christ in ways that are relevant, truthful, and meaningful to all. Continue reading

Sunday’s Sermon: What Kind of King is This?

Palm Sunday always greets us with a sense of excitement. There is a breath of anticipation that comes in reading the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the reciting of “hosanna.”

When we hear the story and study it, we can’t help but picture the grand processional that takes place. As Luke describes it, Jesus arrives into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey surrounded by his followers who shout “Blessings on the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” It’s an exciting day, filled with anticipation, and the hope of the fulfillment of a promise. Will this be the time that Jesus will claim his messianic throne?

The story surrounding Palm Sunday is one that seems like a grand royal procession. We can easily draw to mind a picture of royal acts of celebration. There is music being sung by the disciples in praise of Jesus. There is a mode of transportation. A group of people surround the king. At the center, is a king preparing to enter his royal city, Jerusalem. It’s a magnificent scene filled with power, joy, and celebration.

We look forward to the pomp and circumstances of Palm Sunday. It’s the day we celebrate with palm branches, special music, and anticipatory words that remind us of this day of Jesus’ entry into a week of painful rejection, deep sacrifice, and the greatest love we have ever experienced.

The narrative Luke tells of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem seems nothing like some of our modern displays on Palm Sunday. Luke describes a scene that is quite simple. There are no trumpets. There are no royal pronouncements. There are no palm branches. There are no large crowds. There is just Jesus and his followers entering the city with the shouts of praise in response to all that Jesus had done. Luke, a gospel particularly focused on how Jesus interacts with the poor and the forgotten, takes great care in making Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a simple yet powerful celebration between himself and those who followed him.

I’m grateful for Luke’s telling of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem for the Passover. The simplicity of Luke’s narrative allows us to experience what occurs as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. What we see is that Jesus rides into town to claim what is rightfully his, which is his kingship as the divine Son of God. Jesus enters Jerusalem to fulfill the messianic mission. In doing so, Jesus allows us to see what it means for him to be our Lord.

We see this in the symbols and words Luke uses. Luke is very careful in describing what takes place. Luke is the only gospel writer to describe Jesus as king as he enters Jerusalem. Jesus’ entrance gives us a glimpse of the kind of king Jesus is, has been, and will always be.

The entrance into Jerusalem shows us that Jesus is the king of peace. It is an unique statement for Jesus to make and an interesting time to do it. The Messianic promise came with expectations of a military revolutionary who would destroy the Roman Empire and return the Davidic king to his throne. The offer of a king of peace also was counter to the Roman idea of peace, which was central to their civilization. The Roman peace was formed around the premise that maintaining the status quo meant serving Rome’s interests. Both ideas were founded on militaristic goals.

However, Jesus does not enter Jerusalem to be a revolutionary. The charges leveled against him on Thursday evening and Friday morning cannot stick. Jesus does not desire to be a military combatant. He comes as the offerer and maker of peace. Jesus is peace, because he is the one who offers the way to reconciliation to the Father. The procession of Palm Sunday leads us to the darkness of Good Friday. It is on that day Jesus took on our sin and died the death we deserved. It was an act of love that renewed our relationship with God through faith in Christ. This is peace that brings about a sense of calm, hope, and love to our lives.

Jesus brought his peace into the world. He rode into Jerusalem on the back of an animal that is the image of peace and humility. There are no military promises to end the Roman empire. What Jesus offers is the promise of reconciliation and peace where there was once distance between us and God. Only Jesus can offer us this peace.

The entrance into Jerusalem also highlights Jesus’ servant heart. Leaders are not always seen as servants. Sometimes that we are seen as people who were to be served. We can see this in the displays of the Roman government, especially of Herod Antipas. As the tetrarch, or ruler, of Judea, Antipas would enter Jerusalem at the start of the Passover. He did so with a big display to exhibit his authority and the power of the Roman government. He would ride in on a big war horse to showcase his power. Antipas never saw himself as the people’s servant nor was he interested in a mission other than his own.

Jesus is a contrast to this display of power. He came not to be served, but to be a servant. The servant nature of his kingship and lordship was on full display when Jesus entered Jerusalem. His entire journey to Jerusalem was about his servant nature. Jesus came to do the Father’s will and to care for the least of these. It was to express the Father’s love for his people and creation and desire for all to be in relationship with him. That was Jesus’ mission. He came not to fulfill his desires, but those of the One who sent him.

Jesus entered Jerusalem knowing what was in front of him. He knew the mission would be fulfilled far removed from the pomp and circumstances of his entrance into Jerusalem. For his mission to be completed, Jesus had to experience an unthinkable death so that the entire world could experience grace, hope, and love in a new way. Jesus came as a servant because the mission wasn’t about him. It was about the Father and all of us.

For that reason, Jesus entered Jerusalem as a king who would suffer for his people. Think about how strange that sounds. A king willing to give his life for his people? That is unthinkable. When we think of kings and leaders, the idea of someone taking on the cause of suffering does come to mind. Instead, we think of kings and leaders as sending others out to suffer for a given cause. A king or leader who suffers for their people is uncommon.

Jesus is the type of uncommon king that is willing to suffer for his people. The entrance into Jerusalem was another recognition of the suffering nature of his calling. No one expected a Messiah who would die for his people. No one expected a Lord who would lay down his life so others could experience everlasting joy in the Father’s care. Jesus knew it was the only way for the mission to be fulfilled. He came to Jerusalem to die on the cross and to suffer for our acts of disappointing God. Jesus entered Jerusalem to suffer for us.

As the coats and palm branches laid on the ground, Jesus eyes were focussed on the cross. The journey during this Passover led Jesus to the most torturous form of capital punishment. It was there that Jesus would show the peace of God, the Lord’s servant call, and the suffering nature of the Messiah’s love for all. Jesus came to fulfill all the promises of the Messiah and to establish a new relationship between God and the Lord’s people. Jesus came to show what it meant that he was the king and Lord of all.

Christ’s followers knew Jesus came to exhibit his kingship. It is why they properly praised him as the “king who comes in the name of the Lord.” They  may not have known the lengths Jesus was willing to go to show what this meant, but they knew Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus’ followers gathered to praise him for his mighty name and the work he came to do.

Some who gathered along the streets of Jerusalem that day wanted the disciples to stop praising Jesus as king. For unknown reasons, some Pharisees wanted the disciples to stop praising Jesus as king. They were fearful that the message of Jesus as king would upset the Roman authorities. To be honest, though, Jesus’ reign as king challenged the religious leaders, because it called attention to how they had fallen short of God’s desires. Jesus wasn’t the king they wanted. They wanted one who suited their own interests and not those of the Father.

Jesus is clear. He says nothing can prevent the message of his kingdom from being shared. He makes an interesting analogy. He says even if his followers were quiet then the stones would shout in praise. What Jesus says is that all of creation was yearning for this moment. Noting can keep this message, and mission, from being fulfilled.

While nothing can keep the message of Jesus as king from being shared, it is a message that demands a response from us. How will we respond to Jesus’ kingly rule? Jesus’ kingship and Lordship challenges us to see how we have accepted who Christ is and made the Lord’s truth central to our lives.

This has been the challenge of Christ’s kingship throughout time. On the day Jesus entered Jerusalem, all of his followers and, perhaps, even some in the crowd, shouted, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” By Friday morning, the shouts of praise had turned to cries of distance with the gut-wrenching words of “crucify him.” Both responses make a declaration of how we view Christ as king. One seeks to praise the Lord for all that he has done, while the other seeks to have no part in God’s kingdom and Jesus’ king of kingship.

As we embark on this Holy Week, the challenge of Christ’s kingdom is as real as it ever has been. A king who has come in peace, as a servant, and offering himself in humble sacrifice for all people may not always be what the world wants, but it is what was needed to bring us back to a relationship with God.

Is Jesus the kind of king that we want? Do we desire Christ to come and be our king and our Lord? These are questions worthy of reflections as we embrace the celebrations ahead.

Jesus has come into Jerusalem, this day, to fulfill his mission. He came to claim his kingship through measures of peace, sacrifice, and suffering. He came to redeem the people through a love that is beyond all measures. That is my kind of king. Is it yours?